Jonah Lehrer and the New Science of Creativity
The following is a repost of my latest article originally posted on ScientificAmerican.com. It is a review of Jonah Lehrer’s latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, which was released March 19th.
Bob Dylan was stuck. At the tail end of a grueling tour that took him across the United States and through England he told his manager that he was quitting music. He was physically drained – insomnia and drugs had taken their toll – and unsatisfied with his career. He was sick of performing “Blowin’ in the Wind” and answering the same questions from reporters. After finishing a series of shows at a sold out Royal Albert Hall in London, he escaped to a cabin in Woodstock, New York to rethink his creative direction.
What came next would change rock ‘n’ roll forever. As soon as Dylan settled into his new home he grabbed a pencil and started writing whatever came to his mind. Most of it was a mindless stream of conscious. “I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit, twenty pages long,” he once told interviewers. The song he was writing started like any children’s book – “Once Upon a Time” – but what emerged was a tour de force that left people like Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon in awe. A few months later, “Like A Rolling Stone” was released to critical acclaim.
Creativity in the 21st Century
Every creative journey begins with a problem. For Dylan it was the predictability and shallowness of his previous songs. He wasn’t challenging his listeners enough; they were too comfortable. What Dylan really wanted to do to was replace the expected with the unexpected. He wanted to push boundaries and avoid appealing to the norm; he wanted to reinvent himself.
For most of human history, the creative process has been associated with higher powers; it was about channeling the muses or harnessing one’s inner Apollonian and Dionysian; it was otherwordly. Science has barely touched creativity. In fact, in the second half of the 20th century less than 1 percent of psychology papers investigated aspects of the creative process. This changed in the last decade. Creativity is now one of the most popular topics in cognitive science.
The latest installment is Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works – released today. With grandiose style á la Proust Was Neuroscientist and How We Decide, Lehrer tells stories of scientific invention and tales of artistic breakthroughs – including Dylan’s – while weaving in findings from psychology and neuroscience. What emerges from his chronicles is a clearer picture of what happens in the brain when we are exercising – either successfully or unsuccessfully – our creative juices. The question is: what are the secrets to creativity?
How To Think
There’s nothing fun about creativity. Breakthroughs are usually the tale end of frustration, sweat and repeated failure. Consider the story of Swiffer. Back in the 1980s Procter and Gamble hired the design firm Continuum to study how people cleaned their floors. The team “visited people’s homes and watched dozens of them engage in the tedious ritual of floor cleaning. [They] took detailed notes on the vacuuming of carpets and the sweeping of kitchens. When the notes weren’t enough, they set up video cameras in living rooms.” The leader of the team, Harry West, described the footage as the most boring stuff imaginable. After months of poring through the tapes he and his team knew as much about how people cleaned their floors as anybody else – very little.
But they stuck with it. And eventually landed on a key insight: people spend more time cleaning their mops than they did cleaning the floor. That’s when they realized that a paper towel could be used as a disposable cleaning surface. Swiffer launched in the spring of 1999 and by the end of the year it generated more than $500 million in sales.
Discovery and invention require relentless work and focus. But when we’re searching for an insight stepping back from a problem and relaxing is also vital; the unconscious mind needs time to mull it over before the insight happens – what Steve Berlin Johnson calls the “incubation period.” This is the story of Arthur Fry, which Lehrer charmingly brings to life.
In 1974 Fry attended a seminar given by his 3M colleague Spencer Silver about a new adhesive. It was a weak paste, not even strong enough to hold two pieces of paper together. Fry tried to think of an application but eventually gave up.
Later in the year he found himself singing in his Church’s choir. He was frustrated with the makeshift bookmarkers he fashioned to mark the pages in his hymnal book; they either fell out or got caught in the seams. What he really needed was glue strong enough so his bookmarkers would stick to the page but weak enough so they wouldn’t rip the paper when he removed them. That’s when he had his moment of insight: why not use Silver’s adhesive for the bookmark? He called it the Post-it Note.
Fry’s story bodes well with tales of insight throughout history. Henrí Poincaré is famous for thinking up Non-Euclidean geometry while boarding a bus, and then there’s Newton’s apple-induced revelation about the law of gravity. Lehrer delves into the relevant research to make sense of these stories from the neurological level. Fascinating studies from Mark Jung-Beeman, John Kounios and Joy Bhattacharya give us good reason to take Lehrer’s advice: “Rather than relentlessly focusing, take a warm shower, or play some Ping-Pong, or walk on the beach.”
When it comes to the creative process, then, it’s important to balance repose with red bull. As Lehrer explains: “the insight process… is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. But, once the brain is sufficiently focused, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight.”
The flip side of the creative process is other people. The world’s great ideas are as much about our peers as they are about the individual who makes it into the textbook. To explore how the people around us influence our ideas Lehrer explains the research of Brian Uzzi who, a few years ago, set out to answer this question: what determines the success of a Broadway musical?
With his colleague Jarrett Spiro, Uzzi thoroughly examined a data set that included 2,092 people who worked on 474 musicals from 1945 to 1989. They considered metrics such as reviews and financial success and controlled for talent and any economic or geographic advantages – big New York City musicals would likely flub the data. They found that productions failed for two reasons. The first was too much like-mindedness: “When the artists were so close that they all thought in similar ways… theatrical innovation [was crushed].” On the other hand, when “the artists didn’t know one another, they struggled to work together and exchange ideas.” Successful productions, in contrast, found an even distribution between novelty and familiarity within its members. This is why West Side Story was such a hit: it balanced new blood with industry veterans.
This is what the website InnoCentive.com teaches us. InnoCentive is a website where, as Matt Ridley would suggest, ideas go to have sex. The framework is simple: “seekers” go to the website to post their problems for “solvers.” The problems aren’t trivial but the rewards are lucrative. For example, the Sandler-Kenner Foundation is currently offering a $10,000 reward for anybody who can create “diagnostic tools for identification of adenocarcinoma and neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer at early stages of development.” Another company is offering $8,000 to anyone who can prevent ice formation inside packages of frozen foods.
What’s remarkable about InnoCentive is that it works. Karim Lakhani, a professor at Harvard Business School, conducted a study that found that about 40 percent of the difficult problems posted on InnoCentive were solved within 6 months. A handful of the problems were even solved within days. “Think, for a moment,” Lehrer says, “about how strange this is: a disparate network of strangers managed to solve challenges that Fortune 500 companies like Eli Lilly, Kraft Foods, SAP, Dow Chemical, and General Electric—companies with research budgets in the billions of dollars—had been unable to solve.”
The secret was outside thinking:
The problem solvers on InnoCentive were most effective when working at the margins of their fields. In other words, chemists didn’t solve chemistry problems, they solved molecular biology problems, just as molecular biologists solved chemistry problems. While these people were close enough to understand the challenges, they weren’t so close that their knowledge held them back and caused them to run into the same stumbling blocks as the corporate scientists.
This is the lesson from West Side Story: great ideas flourish under the right balance of minds. John Donne was right: no man is an island.
There are so many wonderful nuggets to take away from Imagine, and Lehrer does an excellent job of gathering stories from history to bring the relevant psychological research to life. The few stories and studies I’ve mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg.
When I asked him what the takeaway of his book is (if there could be just one) he said:
The larger lesson is that creativity is a catchall term for a bundle of distinct processes. If you really want to solve the hardest problems you will need all these little hacks in order to solve these problems. This is why what the cognitive sciences are saying about creativity is so important.
He’s right. We think about creativity as being a distinct thing and as people being either creative or not, but the empirical research Lehrer discusses tells a different story. Creativity engages multiple cognitive processes that anybody can access.
This is why Dylan’s story is so important: It’s the story of a musician being discontent with his creative direction, having a moment of insight, working tirelessly to bring this insight and new sounds to life to ultimately change the norm. Dylan’s genius isn’t about a specific skill that nobody else possessed. It’s about his ability to wage through the creative process by using the right parts of the brain at the right times.
Not everybody can be Dylan, but Imagine reminds us that as mysterious and magical as creativity seems, “for the first time in human history, it’s possible to learn how the imagination actually works.”